An interview with Master Yao Chengguang

I’m studying yiquan once more with Master Yao Chengguang. I’ll have more to write about this soon. In the meantime, here’s an interview with Master Yao, translated by (and republished here with the permission of) Scott Meredith, aka Tabby Qat. I need to acknowledge Scott here with gratitude, because it was his blogging which first drew me to yiquan.

Master Yao Chengguang Discusses Martial Arts

February 2008 Martial Spirit Chinese martial arts magazine

Differences between my father’s teaching approach and my own:

My father’s teaching approach differed greatly from that of his teacher Wang Xiangzhai. Likewise, my own current teaching approach differs from that of my father. Normally my father, after giving the students a basic explanation, would then back off and have them reflect, practice, and absorb the teachings on their own. I on the other hand use my decades of martial arts training experience to try to explain everything in complete detail, and tailor my teaching to the students’ own unique characteristics and situation. I focus on the needs of each particular student. I hope to use my decades of training and teaching experience to allow every student to make the greatest progress in the shortest time.
Are there secrets in martial arts training: Yiquan has no secrets. When Master Wang Xiangzhai was training zhanzhuang each morning under Master Guo’s tutelage in the early days, Master Guo wanted to check on Wang’s progress. So inspected Wang’s footprints. If they weren’t soaked with sweat, that meant standing practice had to continue. When my father was training, his cloth shoes used to get completely soaked, so every evening he had to dry them in the oven. Then when we learned from my father, our sweat soaked the entire area under the tree where we practiced standing. So if you really want to say that Yiquan has any secret, it would just be only: hard perseverance with a correct, rational training method and your own determination to understand and overcome obstacles. Any “secret” apart from this is just nonsense. I personally trained under my father beginning at age 8, and by the time I was 15 I was really working hard at it. From 1979 to 1989, for those 10 years, I really trained intensely, it was really tough going. If my father had some special mysterious trick, then I wouldn’t have needed to work so hard at it – couldn’t I have just picked up his secret?

Yao Zongxun’s early training:

When Master Yao Zongxun was training the basics of Yiquan in his first year when he was mastering the basic curriculum, every morning he would take some bread and water and find a quiet, isolated area to practice on his own. At noon he would eat a little bread, drink some water and rest there a little. Often he’d pass the whole day in this kind of practice. It was only by working this hard that my father achieved his total mastery of the system. Master Yao Zongxun often said: ”To copy me exactly is both right and wrong”. This means that you must learn all the fundamentals perfectly from your teacher, yet at some point, you must make them your own and transcend them also. You cannot just blindly follow a set system. Once you have correctly mastered the teaching, you need to develop your own special style and characteristics.

In the 1940’s when my father was training under Master Wang, his skills were among the very highest of all the disciples and classmates. When he fought as the representative of Master Wang, in innumerable contests, he always prevailed. Later, in the 1960’s when people asked him whether at that time in the past his skills had already reached the highest level, he laughed and said that he was young then and he just felt his opponents were all too slow. Looking back on it, he felt that he had been reacting as a youngster, and relying on the superior attributes of youth. It’s true that he had been training very hard engaging in serious real fighting, but he felt that his understanding of Yiquan had not been very thorough back then. So he came to the point where he himself denied the significance of his earlier victories in all those contests. After so many decades of research and development, he felt that the attributes of the contests of those times were no longer applicable. He felt that only constant negation and constant innovation could lead to ongoing future progress and development. By the 1980’s, my father’s martial attainments and cultivation had reached a level of extreme greatness, yet he continued his unceasing research and practice. He also continued to monitor and very effectively synthesize some advances of Western scientific training methodology into Yiquan. This resulted in great development of Yiquan.

In martial arts, there are mostly broad similarities and small distinctions in form and appearance, but there are huge internal differences between levels. After I watched the films of my trip to Hong Kong in 1988, I felt many things weren’t yet perfected at that time, and the work was lacking in inner content. Now, even though I’m in my 50’s, I feel that both my movement and the internal content of the movement are more properly correct than was the case at that time, and far more profound. This is due to the accumulation of knowledge, which has provided the inspiration for a deep inner transformation of the fundamental quality of the work.

Master Yao’s view of weight training for martial arts:

In weight training, no matter what weight is used, the purpose is to develop the person’s physical power. But in actual hand to hand combat, the opponent’s power is extremely fast and variable, very short and focused. This requires instantaneous adaptation. But large movements will be relatively slow. My father Master Yao has said: Although some combat training systems can develop considerable static power, when it comes to actual deployment, power is lacking. In real fighting, what use is your flashy display of ferocious stomping? All your huffing and staring and taking stances will just give your opponent an opportunity to move in on you. So real power usable in actual combat is to have absolute instantaneous control over the relaxation and tension in your nerves and muscles. Some champions can hit with 800 pounds of force in one hand, but in the stress and flurry of actual fighting, will they be able to bring all that power to bear? In fact, only extremely short, focused and concentrated issuance of power can be effective in a real fight. Power derived from weight lifting is only muscle development, which is too static for actual effective use, and which is not the active, instantaneously responsive power skill of true martial arts.

Master Yao’s view on Taijiquan long pole training:

While it’s true that Taijiquan’s pole training involves a kind of issuance of force, the problem with it is that the range of the pole’s movement is too large. They believe that by snapping in this way they are developing a shortcut to issuing flexible striking force. But in fact effective striking force is instantaneously concentrated. If the scope of movement is too great, no power worth speaking can be delivered. This isn’t a matter of who’s right or wrong – it’s just a matter of looking at the concrete actual situation, a matter of principle. These days a lot of so-called Taijiquan has really lost any actual Taijiquan combative flavor. It is practiced entirely as external movement, without coordination of intent. In fact however, isn’t the Taijiquan principle of “movement like reeling silk” in doing their form also the key idea of Yiquan’s shili practice? But their attempts to seek hunyuanli (omnidimensional power) from their large scope of movement is not nearly as effective as Yiquan’s use of short concentrated movement. The long set made up of many large-scope movements makes it hard for the practitioner to sense and develop hunyuanli. Whereas from the very small movements and concentrated mental workof Yiquan’s zhanzhuang practice, the practitioner quickly comes to understand real martial arts power. Yiquan develops hunyuanli via zhanzhuang (standing post) practice, while Taijiquan seeks hunyuanli via the form practice. It’s worth considering deeply whether Taijiquan seeks to develop offensive skills by using the push hands as the foundation, or via actual sparring.

In Yiquan, the balance of hard and soft is tipped to the soft side, with hardness only used for the instantaneous issuance of power. The application of so-called “hard” force must be of high quality. The circular principles isn’t meant to be applied statically from one location, rather it’s a continuously varying scope of work, allowing for issuance of power at any time from any position. The mojin practice of zhanzhuang is a highly effective way to cultivate the soft/hard distinction. All movement includes every possible direction on all sides. It’s therefore very difficult for an opponent to feel where the power is coming from.

Once a certain gentleman from Hong Kong asked me: Your skill is so great, is it because you are a natural genius? In fact, anybody and everybody can learn Yiquan. The teacher is the most important element – a good teacher won’t let the students go down the wrong road. At the same time, the student’s own power of understanding and discernment is also very important. The student learns an incalculable amount from doing push hands practice with his classmates and the senior students. When the student puts enough work into the practice, skill develops and with skill comes a real transformation. To learn Yiquan, the student needs a stable outlook and the calm determination in the face of any problem. He must neither hasten nor lag, but simply proceed naturally.

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